Guest Column

Going Back to School as Principal


Irecently had the remarkable experience of participating in a job exchange with an elementary school principal. As a university professor, I had no idea whether any district would dare allow someone like me to assume the leadership reins of a school for a whole year. But to my surprise and delight, five school districts expressed interest, and one brave superintendent turned my proposal into reality.

Why did I want to leave behind my comfortable academic perch of 10 years to become a rough-and-tumble principal? Several reasons compelled me: a desire to forge a meaningful relationship between a school district and university, to hone my own leadership skills, to enhance my role as a professor of educational leadership and to offer something to the school and district.

The elementary school in Littleton, Colo., where I assumed the principalship, enrolled 400 students in grades K-5, with a certified staff of 32 and a classified staff of 15. The number of at-risk students in the suburban district of 16,000 students had increased substantially over the past several years. About 30 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

The district also had experienced a high level of political turmoil within the last five years--ever since a back-to-basics majority had won control of the school board and ousted the superintendent. In addition, the district had declining financial resources.

A Chaotic New World
Although I had previous administrative experience at the high school level, my learning curve was tremendous. I found the work environment for principals had changed dramatically and become even more chaotic.


  • Expanded workload. In the research community, we hear a lot about the changing role of the principal in the context of school reform and examine survey data indicating many principals are taking early retirement while experienced teachers are reluctant to move into administration. My 11-month experience reinforced that fact. I felt much greater pressure to be accountable for everything in my building, while the need to involve others in many decisions that once would have been made by the principal alone meant it took longer to get things done.


    The sheer number of personal interactions during the day on a wide array of issues created an enormous workload. Within moments on any given day, I found myself jumping from a status report on the school’s construction program to a staff recommendation for use of professional development funds to questions about attention deficit disorder. What a different world than higher education!


  • Complexity of information. Today’s principals are supposed to serve as knowledgeable resources for their staff members, parents and community. I found I was constantly experiencing information overload, attempting to sift through the mounds of information that arrived via e-mail, telephone, memos and reports or meetings.


    Discerning what information to circulate to parents and community members was an added expectation in the arena of shared decision making. I found it impossible to share everything with every group or to obtain input on every pending decision.


  • Emotional highs and lows. Often I found the chaotic work environment placed me on an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes multiple expectations seemed to be at odds. The experience of being spread too thin contributed to feeling a loss of control. One afternoon I found myself committed to three meetings simultaneously--a PTO meeting, another dealing with special education staffing and a third appointment with a teacher, physician and parent of a child with attention deficit disorder.


    Even when things appeared to be going well, a single episode could suddenly take the wind out of my sails.

  • Leading from the center. Many sources of stress for principals are associated with site-based management and shared decision making.


    Involving others in decisions is a wonderful idea. The major obstacle is finding the time to sit down with representatives of various groups to explain the issues and solicit their ideas while simultaneously trying to work through the everyday crises.

    What this means is today’s principals must delegate more responsibilities than ever, develop structures to ensure collaborative decision making, alter one’s leadership style and develop new communication skills to facilitate consensus building.


  • Instructional leadership versus management. So how does a principal provide instructional leadership when so many more management responsibilities are associated with the job?


    As I began the principalship, I looked forward to learning more about curricular and instructional issues at the elementary level. I expected to interact regularly with teachers on instructional matters. And while some of this occurred, my job more often focused on managing such issues as selecting and ordering new curricular materials, organizing for district and state assessments and hurriedly completing all the teacher evaluations by April 15. While these important responsibilities certainly were connected to curriculum and instruction, they did not necessarily allow thoughtful and engaging dialogue about teaching and learning.

    I don't believe my good intentions were at fault for the lack of thoughtful engagement. I organized an afterschool reading/study group and offered to substitute for teachers so they could visit each other’s classrooms. But staff reductions, special education demands, disciplinary cases and construction matters ate away the time that could have been devoted to curriculum and instruction.

  • Outside Linkages
  • Community leadership. One of the more surprising findings of my year in the principalship was the extent to which I was involved in community issues. It is in this area where the role of principal seems to have changed the most. While I anticipated working with a site-based council and other advisory groups, I had not fully expected the extent of marketing and promoting the school and interacting with other community agencies to meet the needs of children and families.

    During my second week on the job, I was informed that our staff needed to develop a brochure to promote our school among parents. Charter schools and other schools of choice have forced principals to be concerned about marketing and public relations.

    Meetings with psychologists, psychiatrists and social services personnel from county agencies also commanded my time. The number of students receiving special services had increased over five years. So too had the severity of disorders. I found the number of students receiving medications for ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or other illnesses staggering.

  • Richness of relationships. One interesting discovery was the importance of developing relationships within the school community. This discovery was so profound and occupied so much time and thought that it emerged as a distinct theme in my post-principalship reflections.

    Developing relationships requires excellent communication skills, trust and support. A principal must model honesty and integrity. My year in charge reinforced for me that education is a people business--real human beings inhabit schools and classrooms, individuals with differing beliefs, backgrounds and personal traumas.

    It is the quality of relationships with students, parents, school staff and community members that makes a difference in school improvement. Yet devoting the necessary time and energy to build and nurture those relationships is often shortchanged by the many management tasks demanded of the principal.

    I was honored to have walked in a principal’s shoes for a year and appreciate the willingness of the superintendent and board to allow the exchange. The rewards were numerous, but the most joyous part was interacting with children and understanding their hopes, dreams and anxieties.

    Kathryn Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Colorado, College of Education, Greeley, CO 80639. E-mail: